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Hiking Through Tennessee: Rock Island State Park

Posted on Tuesday, January 30, 2024 at 12:26 pm

NATHAN HAVENNER – Staff Writer

Situated at the confluence of the Caney Fork, Collins and Rocky Rivers, the 883-acre Rock Island State Park in Rock Island Tennessee offers up everything from cascading waterfalls to hiking trails and picturesque scenic overlooks.

Located at 82 Beach Road, Rock Island, Rock Island State Park was officially established in 1969.

“This was a historical land holding from one of the Revolutionary War veterans John Cunningham,” Ranger Jordan Patrick said.

While the original “Rock Island” Tennessee is a nearby island in the Caney Fork River, the state park has taken on that name as well.

Patrick said the majority of the park’s land holdings are rented from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and while the park can lay claim to some 833-acres, there are also two satellite zones coming in at 300 and 500 acres each.

Built in 1916, Great Falls Dam provides hydroelectric power still generated at the park today, which also led to the creation of the 2,110 surface-acre Great Falls Lake.

When it comes to hiking, Rock Island State Park has a variety of options from the novice nature walker to the dedicated hiker. Eight different trails range in length from 0.15 mile to 3 miles.

Patrick said the moderate-rated 1.7 mile Downstream Trail remains the most popular hiking option within the park, providing great views of Twin Falls.

“Twin Falls is kind of a natural consequence to a man-made feature,” he said. “There is no stream up top, it is just water coming out of the rocks and Twin Falls is a big 92 ft. waterfall that comes spilling down the hillside.”

The falls were created when the dam was built, causing water on the backside of the dam to back up.

“If visitors wanted to enjoy the park and enjoy those scenes and still be active, right in front of there we have the downstream trail,” Patrick said.

An option for hikers looking to put a little distance on their boots is the Collins River Nature Trail.

A loop trail totaling three-miles, hikers will traverse near the riverbank along the outer edge of the Collins River Peninsula. The trail is a great place to see wildlife such as white-tailed deer and the Pileated woodpecker.

Patrick said a highway rerouting projects has brought some changes to the popular trail.

“It is trying to get the highway away from our historic cotton mill,” he said.

Dating to the 1890s, the mill sits a mere 2.5 feet from the roadway.

“The reroute project for the highway is currently underway, and a portion of the trail has been shut down, but around last winter we made great efforts to reroute the trail back to a connector loop on the trail,” Patrick said.

For hikers interested in taking in the views from Rock Island’s rocky bluffs, the 1.7-mile moderate rated Bluff Trail located near the park recreation and campground area is the way to go.

“That is going to offer you unique views of the bluff ecosystem here in the upper Cumberland region,” Patrick said. “You are situated at an overlook over there, it is a little spur off the main trail.”

Patrick said for parents hiking with children, it is important to make sure they stay on the trail and safely away from the bluff line.

“That is going to give you a really good shot of the kind of unofficial beginning of Center Hill Lake,” he said.

For those that would rather get their kicks on water rather than land, Rock Island State Park has plenty of options as well.

Patrick said stand-up paddling boarding is something park officials have seen an increase in during the last few years.

“During seasons where the lake levels are going to be up higher than they normally would it actually puts several of our rapids underwater and makes it passable for paddles,” he said. “People can actually put in at a boat ramp of their choice at the Center Hill Reservoir, paddle up, and paddle to within 200 yards of Twin Falls.”

Boating and fishing are two other popular water-based activities at the park.

Anglers can cast a reel year-round at Rock Island State Park at not only Center Hill Lake, but also Great Falls Lake and the Caney Fork, Collins and Rocky Rivers. Fish common to the area include both largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye and musky.

For boaters, the boat launch ramp located on Center Hill Lake proves access to the parks river systems, with some sections deemed for experienced kayakers only due to the white water that can occur.

In addition to the Sandbar Beach, swimming is also available at the park’s Upper Gorge when it is open.

“Other than nature viewing, waterfall viewing, birding, our next most popular destination at Rock Island State Park is the sandbar beach,” Patrick said. “If someone is going to want to come into the Upper Gorge, I always recommend checking with us between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to find out if it going to be open whenever they come.”

Patrick said the gorge has been closed for a while due to an ongoing project with the federal government.

With its collection of waterfalls, rocky outcrops, lake, rivers and hiking trails, Patrick said there are many reasons for someone to come spend a day or weekend taking in everything Rock Island State Park has to offer.

“If you are looking for a breathtaking view in an area that was carved by time and different stages of human construction and civilization entering the area then you are sure to have a wonderful time here at Rock Island,” he said. “We are a water park, so definitely bring your fishing pole and bring your swimming trunks.”

The Marion Tribune – October 5, 2023